On Saturday, at a meeting with Iranian medalists in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympics games, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei once again drew attendees back to the only topic that concerns him in the sporting arena: Israel.
Using harsher language than usual, Khamenei told officials “not to be passive” in refusing to accept Israel’s legitimacy at international sports contests. He added: “The ruthless, genocidal, illegitimate Zionist regime is trying to gain legitimacy by participating in international sports arenas.
“And the arrogant Powers in the world are helping them. However, the honorable sports officials and athletes should not be passive in this area at all.”
He also made the strange assertion: “Many organizations are busy planning in order to deprive society and especially the youth of hope and exuberance.” None of these ‘organizations’ were named.
This is far from Khamenei’s first statement on the subject of Iranians’ engagement with Israeli athletes. But his tone was sharper than usual, perhaps due to the awareness of how divisive a topic this has become.
Iran's Historic Match with Israel, 10 Years Before the Revolution
The informal ban on Iranians’ competing with Israeli athletes, which is not codified in law but indisputably exists, was imposed straight after the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Before that, Iranians and Israelis had competed against each other on the sports field several times.
Of these, the match best remembered by Iranians — including Iranian politicians — was when Iran and Israel played the Asian Cup final of May 19, 1968, which took place at the 30,000-seat Amjadieh Stadium (now Shahid Shiroudi) in Tehran. That day, Homayoon Behzadi and Parviz Ghelichkhani scored goals that would win their team the Asian championship. The victory was all the more historic because it was also the first time Iran had competed.
The country erupted in celebrations. Even then, Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that fans’ expressions of jubilation were an instance of “fighting Israel”. In 1983, he would remember the match in an interview on TV: “In those days, I was a young seminary student. The general mood in Tehran was against the Israeli team. After the game all the people of Tehran showed their joy for this victory. The taxi driver said, ‘Did you see how we scored?’ This showed the Iranian people were unhappy about the Shah’s cooperation with Israel.”
This stunning logical leap asode, Khamenei also did not modify his position over the years. In 2018, in a meeting with Alireza Karimi, an Iranian wrestler who had been forced to lose deliberately to his Russian opponent so that he wouldn’t have to face an Israeli later, he said: “After the revolution, the Islamic Republic did not recognize the Zionist regime nor the racist regime of South Africa. Of course, the apartheid regime of Africa fell. But the usurper, false and racist Zionist regime will fall, too.”
Promises to Change Made on Paper Only
Awareness of this internal ban in Iran has prompted the International Olympic Committee (ICO) to threaten in 2020 to suspend Iran from competing at international events. The International Judo Federation (IJF) suspended Iran in 2019 while the country’s Wrestling Federation received a final warning.
In January 2020, after the IOC intervened, IOC President Thomas Bach announced that Iran had promised to stop violating the Olympic Charter by ending its discriminatory policy against athletes from Israel. Bach said the pledge had been signed by both Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar and Reza Salehi Amiri, President of the National Olympic Committee.
It might well have been. But Khamenei is the head of state, who makes all cardinal decisions in Iran, from nuclear technology and the development of ballistic missiles to banning Covid-19 vaccines made in the US and UK.
On Saturday, Khamenei’s new edict on non-engagement with Israeli athletes went even further. He said Iranians needed to support foreigners who did the same, like judoka Fethi Nourine, who refused a bout with an Israeli this year and received a 10-year suspension from the IJF.
“The Ministry of Sports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and legal organizations,” Khamenei decreed, “should...support the athletes of the country and even the Muslim athletes of other countries, such as the Algerian athlete who was recently disqualified.”
How the Sports Ministry, which in recent years has been unable to provide Iranian Olympic athletes with their basic necessities, was meant to support foreign athletes too was not explained.
Khamenei then accused some other Olympic medalists of cheating and seemed to compare not upholding the regime’s values in contests to doping: “In addition to unfair refereeing, bribery, political scheming and the use of illegal drugs, and winning a medal by betraying one’s country and one’s values, are also examples of unhealthy ways of becoming a champion.”
The Hijab Exodus
In another part of his speech, Khamenei praised Iranian female athletes for wearing hijab at international events. “The Iranian women athletes’ hijab has prepared the ground for female athletes in [other] Islamic countries, so much so that now women athletes from more than 10 other Islamic countries participate in athletic events wearing hijab.”
Female athletes from other Muslim countries might choose to wear hijab at international events. But they are mostly not being forced to do so, as the Iranian competitors are. Kimia Alizadeh, the Taekwondo champion, is perhaps the best-known Iranian female athlete who left her homeland and national team, but the list of Iranian sportswomen who emigrated to other countries in the past five years due to this restrictive rule is long.
Mitra Hejazipour, the Iranian female chess grandmaster, had this to say about why she left her native land: “My life was dominated by forced hijab. In my opinion forced hijab is a clear symbol of an ideology that considers women the second sex.” Similar reasons were given by other Iranian sportswomen, including the chess master Ghazal Hakimifard, chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat, futsal player Shiva Amini and chess grandmaster Dorsa Derakhshani.
In addition, Khamenei either does not know, or does not want to know, that in recent years several Iranian female athletes have been barred from entering international competitions because of this requirement. When the Iranian women’s basketball and football teams were excluded from the Asian Games, female athletes started a campaign to convince federations to accept their new uniforms. Later, women athletes from some other Muslim countries chose to wear the uniforms that approved by these federations but, unlike Iranians, had not been excluded to begin with.
Khamenei’s Ideal Athlete
In his speech on Saturday, Ayatollah Khamenei also gave an adroit summary of his view of athletes’ mission in the Olympic and Paralympic games: “Naming our sports teams after martyrs, especially Martyr Soleimani, gifting medals to special martyrs, using a Basiji scarf as a symbol of self-sacrifice and resistance and prostrating on it, wearing hijab, especially the raising of the national flag by women wearing chador, expressing love and affection for the flag, scenes of praying, embracing the defeated opponent and the scene of the Paralympic volleyball team honoring the mother of Martyr Babaee [an air force general killed by friendly fire during the Iran-Iraq war] are all manifestations of Islamic values, and symbols of Iranian identity.”
Khamenei might have been inspired here by the recent performance of Javad Foroughi, a marksman and member of the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force who won the first gold medal for Iran at the Tokyo Olympics. Foroughi was pictured giving the Iranian flag a military-style salute after winning, and praying and prostrating himself in the arena. He then dedicated his medal to the person of Ayatollah Khamenei.
Khamenei’s latest speech was a clear and undisguised instance of political interference in sports. It ran contrary to the International Olympic Committee’s charter and exemplified just what an array of concerned observers have said about Iran for years.